Assessment isn’t the big, bad wolf of education – our perception of it is the problem

Wood trotting through trees in snowy wood

In the current education debate, I believe assessment is unfairly judged. It is easy fodder for persecution because it is misunderstood and often carries negative connotations with students, teachers, parents and the administration.

Part of the problem – and I'm not sure how it happened – is that many people have come to think of assessment and testing as only being a final exam that determines the future of a student's academic life with unmistakable finality. I get it – some tests are quite important. In the United States, the ACT and/or SAT play a major part in university selections and most colleges provide significant scholarships for students who obtain a certain score. There's some pressure there and my students are quite driven by this. They often attend test preparatory classes, many parents hire tutors and the high school where I work even provides tutoring programs during lunch for students.

But assessment isn't just the ACT and assessment isn't a bad word – it's our perception of assessment that is the problem. Instead of thinking of assessment as a test that is going to tell me how flawed I am, we should think of it as a measurement of where I am in the learning process. If I'm studying theories of color vision, for example, and I think I know it all because I either heard my teacher talk about it and I wrote some notes, or I watched a video on the theories (or any other learning strategy), but I never have to actually think with the information, I am probably mistaken and overconfident in my learning.

I see this overconfidence all the time with my students. It is quite difficult for high school students to understand what they know and what they don't know, and many have no idea how to assess this. Think about it – how many times were you told, step-by-step, how to assess your own learning? Probably not very often, if at all. It is not something we focus on in the classroom very much and is often assumed to be a skill our students intrinsically possess.

I have a little mantra for myself and my students: "If the final test is the first time you have to effortfully interact with the material presented during the unit, we're both probably going to fail."

Enter assessment: I believe assessment should be a daily occurrence in the classroom because low-stakes assessment of learning allows students to quickly grasp their understanding of a particular concept. Assessment can be any type of retrieval practice – from a few multiple-choice questions to open-ended essays – and they can be used before, during, or at the end of the class. They may test knowledge of information learned five minutes ago or weeks ago. The most important aspects of this retrieval practice is:

  1. The students have to use their brain to produce answers that demonstrate their knowledge.
  2. Low-stakes assessment is used. This can lower anxiety and make reluctant students more likely to participate.
  3. They are quick. In 10 minutes, I can ask my students about material from the previous class meeting in an open-ended essay and they can assess their learning and know the holes in their understanding. Here is a quite detailed explanation of how I explicitly do this in my classroom.

So, why assess so often?

  1. In my opinion, the biggest reason is the metacognitive value of students being able to assess their learning correctly. They no longer rely on how well they "feel" they understand the material – they have evidence of their understanding.
  2. This can lead to better study/practice habits. Students want to study in an efficient manner and I cannot think of a more time effective strategy than this form of assessment. It produces results. My psychology scores rose 7% from previous years after applying this daily retrieval practice in my classes last year. If students know it works, they are more likely to do it. And, when my students see the fruits of their retrieving labor and apply this to their studies in college, I will have done them a great service.
  3. With regular practice, students become better at answering questions. They understand how to eliminate incorrect answers and construct essays more proficiently.
  4. Regular retrieval practice also relieves some test anxiety. If students are answering questions daily that resemble their end-of-unit assessments, they become more comfortable with the idea of being assessed and getting a question or two wrong is no longer as big a deal. I work with my students to shift the perception from "I got this wrong and I failed" to "Ok, I now know what I don't know so I know what exactly to study." That is huge.

Assessment's perception as the big, bad wolf of education is simply not fair. Those who wish to "ditch" assessment are really doing our students a disservice. In my opinion, schools and teachers should work to change the perception of assessment and provide opportunities frequently for assessment. In doing this, we are creating students who are more likely to embrace its positive values, while also lowering anxiety and creating a better environment for learning.

This is an edited version of a blog that originally ran on the Effortful Educator. 

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